Hong Kong Fast-Tracks New Security Law at Beijing’s Urging

(Bloomberg) -- Hong Kong is fast-tracking new security legislation that would impose life sentences for crimes such as treason and give police expanded powers amid increased pressure from Chinese leaders to get the process wrapped up quickly.

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The 212-page bill was published by the government and debated in hastily arranged sessions in the city’s legislature on Friday. The government sped up the process after senior Chinese officials attending the National People’s Congress urged the law’s passing, with leader John Lee returning early from Beijing to Hong Kong.

It was the first time a draft law was gazetted and debated in the Legislative Council on the same day since the former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, according to a review of lawmaking records. The hearings will continue on Saturday.

Approval of the legislation isn’t in doubt after authorities previously took steps to ensure only “patriots” could stand for elections. The new law will provide authorities with wide-ranging tools to minimize dissent in the city, following Beijing’s imposition of a national security law in 2020 in the wake of pro-democracy protests.

The speed at which Hong Kong is moving to enact the law is to show to President Xi Jinping that the city is “compliant” with his focus on national security during the NPC, according to Chong Ja Ian, associate professor of political science at the National University of Singapore.

The proposed definition of state secrets would bring the city more in line with mainland China’s vague laws around such information and espionage, which have spooked investors over the past year. Disclosure of state secrets carries a potential 10-year jail sentence. A clause has been added allowing the disclosure of state secrets in limited circumstances if it’s in the public interest.

However, several pro-government politicians have raised questions over the ambiguous wording of the hastily introduced bill, according to a US political risk consultancy group. Lawmakers such as Lai Tung-Kwok, Chan Siu-hung, and Regina Ip have expressed concern about overly broad concepts in the bill, according to a note by New York-headquartered Eurasia Group that cited local reports.

The criticisms may lead to the bill being amended to add clarity to overly broad concepts such as “external forces,” which categorizes a company as an external force if its directors are “accustomed to acting in accordance with the directions or wishes of a foreign government authority.” Without further clarity, the definition could potentially extend to any multinational organization with at least one foreigner in its leadership, according to the note.

Officials acknowledged concern by the public in feedback received during the consultation period and vowed to clearly define the offenses to ensure that they precisely target acts endangering national security.

The new law will create concern about where the red line is, said Patrick Poon, visiting researcher at the University of Tokyo, who monitors human rights in Hong Kong.

“The vague definitions will have a chilling effect and lead to even more self-censorship in the media and the civil society,” Poon said.

A spokesperson for the European Union said the legislation “risks exacerbating the erosion of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong brought about” by the 2020 national security law.

Since the 1997 handover, Hong Kong has been required to enact its own security legislation under Article 23 of its mini-constitution. Previous administrations failed to do so in the face of public opposition, which has been wiped out since the crackdown on dissent.

China’s Vice-Premier Ding Xuexiang told a group of Hong Kong delegates visiting Beijing on Wednesday that the city should prioritize legislation of the security law, which he called an urgent and necessary responsibility, China Daily reported on Thursday.

The bill reading came days after a month-long public consultation on the legislation concluded. The planned law receiving overwhelming support, according to the government.

Under the new legislation, penalties for sedition have been increased, with the maximum sentence raised to seven years in jail from the existing two years. Possession of seditious materials will result in a jail term of up to three years.

The police will also get expanded powers under the proposal. These include being able to detain suspects of national security crimes without charge for two weeks beyond the current 48 hour-limit, with a court’s approval. The police can also seek permission to prevent a detainee from using certain lawyers.

Hong Kong’s decision to pass its own security law risks inflaming geopolitical tensions with other major economies. The implementation of the China-drafted national security law provoked a harsh backlash by Western leaders, with the US imposing sanctions on a number of Hong Kong officials, including the city’s leader Lee — who was then the security chief.

The British consulate in Hong Kong said it is monitoring the bill closely and urged the city’s authorities to allow time for “proper legislative scrutiny.” A spokesperson for the US consulate said the country will examine the final law to “understand implications for US citizens, investments, and companies operating in Hong Kong.”

Read More: Top US Envoy in Hong Kong Warns of Creeping Internet Curbs

Hong Kong officials say the law is needed to ensure stability and bolster the economic outlook.

Speaking on Thursday, Lee said there’s a need to pass the law “as soon as possible” to guard against risks from increasingly complex geopolitics and national security threats. Hong Kong’s security chief Chris Tang said Friday the proposal will protect human rights.

In a positive sign for officials, the local stock market rose on Friday, with the Hang Seng Index gaining 0.8% in line with regional peers. That pared a year-to-date loss.

After 26 years without a domestic national security law, the sudden sense of urgency was clear among legislators.

“All we want is for this bill to be passed as soon as possible,” said lawmaker Jeffrey Lam. “We can work seven days a week and even work at nights.”

--With assistance from Jing Li, Jenni Marsh, Siuming Ho and Zheping Huang.

(Adds government response to public feedbacck in ninth paragraph.)

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